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Berard Reviews "Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America"

Post-war academia and counterculture fight queer liberation.

Published onSep 27, 2020
Berard Reviews "Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America"

Book Reviewed:

Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America
Michael Trask

Rating: Five Stars

Not sure how to review this, as it’s been a while since I read a book in this experiential category: a nonfiction book I enjoyed greatly but am not fully sure I “got.”

Camp Sites is a work of queer theory, something with which I have little experience. They kind of train historians to deal with theory with a semester-long sampler at the beginning of their doctoral programs, where you get your Marx week and your Foucault week, etc. etc. They then let you follow up with whatever framing you find compelling on your own (notionally, most of us just go to the archive with just enough theoretical framing to cover our asses). I don’t recall us getting a queer theory week, maybe it was kind of subsumed under feminism week — who knows, it was a while ago.

So, there’s vocabulary and hermeneutics that went over my head. That’s okay. What I got was interesting and not the kind of thing easily explained in a sentence. The idea seems to be that American universities of the post-WWII decades were thoroughly steeped in the philosophical pragmatism developed earlier in the century. It wasn’t just an adopted ideology (indeed, they’d insist it wasn’t an ideology at all), but a way of approaching the world and expressing themselves that Trask calls “the academic style.” This style meant detachment, independence from institutions (even when materially dependent on the university), opposition to ideology, and an emphasis on experience. There’s more than a hint of make-believe, here: you’re supposed to act as though you really believe in things even while maintaining the intellectual flexibility to change these beliefs with experience. Trask compares this to the role-playing that became popular at the same time in Cold War defense exercises designed by some of the same intellectuals.

Notionally, the New Left was the sworn enemy of the academics and administrators who acted as the high priests of the academic style. But Trask convincingly argues that the likes of Mario Savio and Tom Hayden shared more assumptions with Seymour Lipset and Clark Kerr than either side would like to admit. If anything, the student movement was more “committed to commitment” and to the primacy of experience than anyone. Trask never goes the easy route, analytically — he doesn’t make this a “they were therefore exactly the same” thing or a “student outstripped the teacher” thing. It was a matter of emphasis and mode — the “expressive authenticity” of the students versus the “knowing artifice” of the professoriat. Just tearing each other to shreds over what “commitment” looks like . . .

Well, they agreed on one thing: what they were doing was manly, and there was no queer campy funny business about it, no sir. Both the academics and the student rebels patrolled the boundaries of their respective intellectual/stylistic demesnes to keep the gay out, or anyway, in its proper place. And, like any boundary outrider, it felt constantly at risk from the repressed outsider. For the academic style, there had to be assurances that their treatment of ideology as suspect and lionization of serial experimentation in modes of thought and perspective had nothing to do with the queer style of camp — entertaining ideas or postures to satirically explode them — or the queer mode of serial, noncommittal sex. The new left, for its part, formally, kinda-sorta embraced gay liberation, so long as it was a matter of gay people who seemed like them and who rejected “playing roles,” not a bunch of screaming queens (much like how most academics had little issue with discreet homosexuality). Academics dismissed the queers amongst them in campus novels, where basically queers were like them but just too much; student radicals raised the joint specter of the closet queen and the bureaucrat. You had spectacles like Norman Mailer “coming out straight” and insisting that “the system” wanted to make emasculated queers of us all, that the most radical, committed thing you could do was have kids . . . shades of the Proud Boys and their “western babies . . .”

I’m trying to present this all programmatically, largely to keep it all straight in my head, but that’s not what reading Camp Sites is like. It is an incredibly rich 220 pages or so. Let me be a straight (to say nothing of fat) guy for a minute and compare it to some rad ice cream with all kinds of chunks in it, all disparate but unifying into a satisfying experience. Trask reads a vast array of texts: Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Patricia Highsmith, Gore Vidal, Erica Jong, The Valley of the Dolls, John Waters, RAND corporation analysts and business writers, radical manifestos, just all kinds of stuff. He draws together seventies feminism and the new, comparatively structure-light meritocracy concept emerging in the 1970s. He promulgates a theory of “mean camp” in response to Susan Sontag’s theories of good and bad camp, where mean camp just rips through all the assumptions of uplift and does . . . something, I don’t know.

Like I said, I’m not sure I fully “got” everything. If I were writing this for an academic audience I could go back and try to dope out the mean camp thing, or whatever. But I suppose in my own little Savio-lite version of a rebellion against academic style that still uses many of its assumptions, I’m trying to get across a little of what reading this book was like for me. What it was like (along with the ice cream thing, I guess) was a series of brain teasers — I am not “native” to the types of reading Trask used — and swimming in a pleasant stream of ideas at the same time, if that makes sense. Challenging and relaxing all at once. He has a new book coming out on the seventies that involves Philip K. Dick, and I’m pretty stoked about that. Expect an equally compelling review, nerds. 

Peter John Berard, Ph.D., is an organizer, historian and writer in Watertown, Mass. He serves as San Antonio Review’s Book Review Editor. Read more of his work at Too Much Berard.

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